Sarah Churchwell: This knee-jerk anti-Americanism is stupid and lazy


When Jimmy McGovern, the creator of BBC's The Street, won the International Emmy for Best Drama Series this week, he acknowledged that it was "nice to win" but added that he's "a wee bit sick of American cultural imperialism. Should we give a damn about what they think about our culture?... I hate what they have done to the world. I was in New York at the outbreak of this war in Iraq. I know that more than half of New York was opposed to this stupid, futile war, so I'm not condemning all Americans, but any award is tinged with that regret. The US foreign policy takes the shine off any award."

Despite not hailing from New York, about which more below, I'm an American who is as opposed to key aspects of current US foreign policy as the next girl – unless the next girl is Condoleezza Rice. But it is precisely because I am no apologist for the current regime that I've grown a wee bit sick myself of such reflexive denunciations. McGovern is entitled to his opinion, but that doesn't make it any less fallacious.

Unfortunately, it is also representative of the sentiments that Americans around the world – and yes, some of us do have passports – encounter every day, so it seems worth pointing some of these fallacies out. Taking each in turn:

1. "It's nice to win." Most people probably agree. They may also think it ungracious to insult people who've just given you an award (see fallacy 3). If only McGovern had realised that Americans everywhere would defend his freedom to turn the Emmy down.

2. He's "sick of American cultural imperialism." Understandable, really. It is shocking the way Americans force others at gunpoint (because we all have guns) into watching our television programmes and paying to see our films. Clearly, someone like McGovern has suffered greatly under this sinister regime, as he said that US television shows from the 1950s were the inspiration for The Street. Or is US culture OK if it's recycled?

3. "Should we really give a damn what they think about our culture?" Of course not. I'm sure a great many Americans don't give a damn what he thinks about ours. Sadly, however, it can't take credit for the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which is the largest global organization of broadcasters, with members from over 70 countries. McGovern's confusion might stem from the ceremony's being hosted in New York – presumably because the dollar is so debased that people from all over the world can come there for our cultural imperialism, cheap.

4. "I hate what they've done to the world." Coming from a Briton, this is a bit surprising. I am referring not to the pinching of the Elgin marbles or other crimes of the British Empire, but rather to Monty Python, whose Life of Brian established the benefits of empire in 1979. "All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

No one with a brain denies that cultural imperialism has serious costs, but Tom Stoppard is not the only person who believes that rock'*'roll helped bring down the Iron Curtain. The internet – which everyone knows was invented by Al Gore – is bringing democracy and communication to people all over the world. And whatever the limitations of its aid programmes, the US does help provide sanitation, medicine, education, and infrastructure to many countries, lots of which are Muslim, as long as they aren't named Iraq.

5. "I know that half of New Yorkers oppose this war, so I'm not condemning all Americans." New Yorkers, who sometimes forget the rest of us, may not object to this synecdoche. The other 292,925,521 Americans probably would, especially since recent polls suggest that some two-thirds of them also oppose the war.

6. Current "US foreign policy" is a cause for regret. No arguments here, if we are using that phrase reductively as a shorthand for the incursion into Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, or extraordinary rendition. (I'm also not a fan of Bush's domestic policies, for the record.) Indeed, in a milieu distorted by this administration's efforts to equate dissent with treason, I consider it my patriotic duty to criticise my government, and will defend McGovern's right to do the same.

But a sweeping indictment of American "imperialism" tout court, that is unable to discriminate between geopolitics and culture, the military and the movies, isn't going to help anyone. American culture constitutes a force majeure at the moment, it's true.

But popular culture can only become a juggernaut if it's, er, popular. If people don't like it, it will disappear. And when it is popular, it can be a force for change. Just ask the Chinese government, who have reportedly grown very nervous about the popularity of their version of Pop Idol.

To suggest that giving an award to a television programme is somehow equivalent to invading a sovereign nation and directly or indirectly causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people is just the kind of stupid, lazy, solipsistic thinking that you'd expect to get from an American. Even if he is from Liverpool.

Sarah Churchwell is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

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